Amid the furor around the Google “man-ifesto” — the male author of which, James Damore, has since left the company after his 10-page thinkpiece on why women aren’t that well suited for coding went viral — there’s one question that nobody seems to have asked.
Why haven’t we heard about any internal pro-diversity manifestos written by women within Google? Or within Uber? Or any of the scores of Silicon Valley companies?
They must exist. Google employs thousands of women, from its chief financial officer Ruth Porat down, and some of them must have thoughts about how to increase the pool of talent from which to draw its future managers and leaders. (Porat, one should acknowledge, was hired from outside.) So why haven’t we heard about them?
Probably for many of the same reasons that we have heard about the screed from James Damore. Women make up about 20% of the tech workforce; African-Americans, about 1%, according to Google.
Google’s CEO has responded to Damore’s manifesto by saying in a memo to employees that it violated the company code of conduct by furthering harmful gender stereotypes.
The “brogrammer” culture with its built-in unconscious sexism and, potentially, racism is exceptionally powerful in Silicon Valley, and it’s a rare company that can break it. (Github and GoDaddy are two examples that have made great efforts to do so.)
We’ve heard about Damore’s memo because voices like his drown out the rest. He suggests that because men (presently) dominate in pure programming, allowances should be made to help women along into the coding space. Women are good at collaborating, he says; so let’s have more collaborative programming. (The document is online.)
Damore is highly educated. He has a master’s degree in systems biology from Harvard. But as Yonatan Zunger, a former senior manager at Google, pointed out, the skills that qualify you as a coder are nothing like the ones that make you a good manager. Especially when you’re trying to develop and improve a product that will be used by hundreds of millions, or in Google’s case billions, around the world. For that you need empathy and wide-ranging social experience.
Google should know. In February 2010, desperate to catch up with Facebook, it released Google Buzz, a “social network” which constructed itself based on your email inbox. If you had a Gmail account, you were automatically opted in: If people email you, you definitely want to connect with them, right?
Wrong. Within days, the problems were obvious and perhaps best highlighted by the widely reported case of a woman whose abusive ex-partner could see who she was now going out with by looking at her (by default, public) “Buzz profile.”
Googlers were dumbstruck: they’d tested Buzz internally for weeks, months and never had that trouble! But any woman who has suffered harassment could have pointed out the potential problem at internal review.
Google was sued by the US Federal Trade Commission and given mandatory privacy reviews for 20 years. Buzz was shut down in December 2011. Google also settled the lawsuit filed by the woman who said that she had been connected with her ex-husband and other Google users complaining of a violating of privacy, but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.
Managing big teams requires the interpersonal skills that Damore says women tend to have. But if women are better suited to that — and men less well-suited — how come there are so many men in jobs they’re not suited for? Might there be some sort of positive discrimination in favor of men going on?
Imagine what Twitter might be like if it had been designed from the start by people who had experienced harassment: would it be such a ferment of fakes and bile? Would an Uber founded by a woman have the internal sexism problem women employees have claimed?
As Zunger also points out, if you draw from the broadest possible selection, you’ll get the best possible people. That’s why racial and gender diversity in hiring is good: not for abstract reasons, but because you’re selecting from the world rather than your backyard.
This incident will leave anger in its wake. “The women I know at Google are some of the most brilliant people I know,” commented Leigh Honeywell, tech fellow at the ACLU, on Twitter. “The memo was an insult to their work.”
Honeywell also short circuits the predictable complaints about Damore and Google parting ways by pointing to the “paradox of intolerance”: if you tolerate absolutely anything, including intolerance, then you’ll be overwhelmed by the intolerant. Thus, you have to draw lines somewhere.
Post-rationalizing memos which fail to see inherent biases are a good place to start.
This article has been corrected to reflect that according to Harvard University, James Damore received a master’s degree in Systems Biology in 2013, not a PhD.